Dawn patrol

Posted by Ken Campbell January 7, 2009 0 Comment 576 views

I am standing on the beach, checking to make sure my hatch covers are secure and keeping an anxious eye on the breaking waves.The surf is not overly large, 3 – 4 feet, but it is constant and driven hard by the biting wind. Relentless. Daylight is scratching at the remains of the night and the sky is leaden. The gravel beach is steep and the outgoing tide is making the waves close out in barrels of foam and pounding spray.

From the window, it looked smaller, less threatening. I pull the sprayskirt tight around the cockpit rim and survey my route one more time. Through the first line of breakers, then sharp left to avoid the 30-foot log flailing and twisting in the intermediate surf zone. Straight out to sea at that point, heading toward the red can buoy that bucks and heaves in the giant swells a mile offshore.

Pull. Pull. A face full of brine and a jarring stoppage of momentum as a wave smacks me in the chest. I duck to get out of the way of the next one, only to be cross-checked by the one behind it. Pull harder. I crest the top of one of the largest, and for a brief moment I am weightless. The water rushes under me and I shoot over the top of the peak and crash again on the back side of the wave. Ready for the next one.

I paddle for ten minutes – it feels like much longer – and I never totally get out of the surf zone. The wind, which is gusting now to 35 knots, is blowing the top off of the swells and there are white horses jumping as far as I can see. I paddle directly into the wind, toward the rocky headland that separates First Beach from Second Beach. My rationale is that, since the cliffs will obstruct the wind, the water there will be less chaotic, the waves will be more predictable.

Wrong. Because the wind is not as strong, the waves are twice the size. The force of the gale flattens the swells farther out in the bay but allows the ones in the lee of the headland to grow unhindered as they approach the beach. When I was a kid, surfing in the benevolent waters of Goleta, California, we measured the height of waves not in feet, but in increments of “overhead.” These rumblers are at least triple overhead, and the larger among them are even more impressive.

I turn back out to sea. The “snot-green sea,” James Joyce called it. The “scrotum-tightening sea.” The swells are getting steeper now and coming at me from a half-dozen different directions. I realign the kayak for the downwind run and, once I have the powerful gusts at my back, I begin flying down the faces of the waves back toward my starting point.

I hold position off of the beach, outside of the first break, and watch for my route choices to develop. These are not waves that I am interested in riding. They are dumping more now, and I can see pebbles and small stones in the water as it crashes to shore. This is a classic survival landing; no points will be awarded for style.

My keel scrapes the gravel once again and just like that, it is over. A few deep breaths, and then I start the carry through the rising wind, up the beach to the cabin. And breakfast.

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